Much like oil companies, Big Pharma has been a reliable movie villain in a post-Cold War world, with its shadowy and secretive practices also providing fodder to conspiracy theorists worldwide. That pharmaceutical companies have a major public relations problem on their hands is no secret, given the frequency with which headlines about faked drug trials, untested medicine, patent lawsuits and unadvertised side-effects show up. So, for one of the world’s largest drug manufacturers—GlaxoSmithKline—to voluntarily usher in an overhaul of its drug promotion methods is a much-needed, and unexpected, demonstration of ethical business conduct in an industry where perception of such is sorely lacking.
By choosing to discontinue some of the drugs companies’ most predatory marketing practices—such as paying doctors to prescribe a particular drug, picking up the tab for physicians to attend medical conferences and stop linking compensation for sales representatives to the number of prescriptions written for drugs they market—Glaxo is breaking with established industry convention. These “perks” are to be phased out across Glaxo’s global operations by 2016 to bring them in line with the so-called patient-first approach the company claims to follow in America since 2011 as part of an agreement with the department of health. Critics point out that this may merely be an attempt to regain public trust, as Glaxo finds itself in trouble with the Chinese government, which is investigating a bribery scandal, only a little more than a year after it agreed to pay a record $3 billion fine to the US government for marketing and safety issues.
Whatever Glaxo’s motives, given that the relationship between pharma representatives and medical professionals has a demonstrably ill effect on healthcare—it has been found to push up costs and distort the market while also incentivising doctors to prescribe unneeded medication—the move towards more ethical conduct is welcome. With increased regulatory supervision on payments to physicians, perhaps Glaxo’s initiative will be contagious, puncturing the drugmakers’ moustache-twirling images in the bargain.